By Andrew Kahn
“Right away, all hell broke loose.” That was Colorado manager Bud Black after his team lost to the Diamondbacks in the National League wild-card game last night. He could have been talking about the American League wild-card game the night before. Wild was the key word in the two play-in games.
1. Bad starts
The wild-card games are supposed to be low scoring, as teams pitch their aces in the win-or-go-home games. Five of the previous 10 wild-card games featured one team getting shutout. This year was, uh, a little different. If you tuned in a little late to either game, you missed a lot. The Yankees and Twins were tied at three after the first inning. Arizona hung a three-spot on Colorado in the first. The four wild card starting pitchers combined for just 7.1 innings while allowing 20 hits and 15 earned runs. The Yankees’ Luis Severino retired just one batter. Colorado’s Jon Gray got just four outs before he was pulled; he admitted after the game that he the moment got too big for him.
Those two pitchers are young. Ervin Santana and Zack Greinke are veterans. Santana gave Minnesota’s lead right back to the Yankees in the first on a three-run homer. He allowed a solo homer the next inning and didn’t come out for the third. Greinke cruised through three innings but fell apart in the fourth, allowing four runs before getting yanked. Graded on the 2017 wild-card game curve, it was a quality start.
2. Star hitters deliver
Baseball is a sport that rewards large sample sizes, so it’s impressive when star players deliver in these one-game situations. MVP candidates Aaron Judge and Paul Goldschmidt did just that. Judge singled in the first ahead of Didi Gregorious’ homer and hit a two-run blast in the fourth to extend the Yankees’ lead to 7-4, showing more emotion than usual as he rounded the bases. He later walked and scored another run. Goldschmidt hit a high curveball over the fence for a three-run homer in the first and singled to start a three-run rally in the eighth. Neither slugger carried his team, but they rose to the occasion.
3. Battle of the bullpens
The unexpectedly terrible starting pitching forced managers to go to their bullpens early and often. For the Yankees, this was a strength much of the year (3.34 ERA, third best in baseball), and Tuesday night was no exception. Chad Green came in and put out Severino’s fire; he eventually gave way to David Robertson, Tommy Kahnle, and Aroldis Chapman. The pen combined for 8.2 innings, allowing just one run and striking out 13.
No other team got that kind of performance, but Arizona’s bullpen did just enough to preserve the victory. The interesting move was starter Robbie Ray, who won 15 games this season, entering in the fifth. He allowed one run in 2.1 innings of work. Archie Bradley wasn’t as successful on the mound—he gave up two home runs in the eighth to let Colorado cut the deficit to one—but he hit a two-run triple, the first extra-base hit of his career, the inning before. He said after the game he was tired taking the mound following his sprint and, in hindsight, probably should have stopped at second base. The aggressive bullpen use will certainly affect Arizona and New York moving forward—Ray, for example, figured to start Game 1 of the NLDS—but that’s the price for not winning their division.
4. Not hanging their heads
Colorado’s Charlie Blackmon said one loss doesn’t take away from the successful season, and he’s right. Both teams eliminated from the playoffs will hope to build on their 2017 success. The Rockies hadn’t made the playoffs since 2009 and posted their most wins since that season. They’ll have to make decisions on several free agents, most notably Carlos Gonzalez, who has been with the club since his second MLB season in 2009. The Twins lost 103 games last year. They hadn’t been to the postseason since 2010, so this was a big step for them. None of their key players are free agents this offseason.
5. Division Series previews
In what will be the juiciest pitching match-up of the entire divisional round, Boston’s Chris Sale opposes deadline acquisition Justin Verlander this afternoon in Houston. In Cleveland, Trevor Bauer will face Sonny Gray. Indians manager Terry Francona wants his ace, Corey Kluber, to pitch on normal rest in a potential Game 5 against the Yankees, so he’s having his ace start the second game of the series.
The National League gets going on Friday to close out a full day of playoff baseball. Kyle Hendricks will take the mound for the Cubs, as they begin to quest to become the first franchise to repeat as World Series champs since the Yankees in 2000. His opposing number will be announced later today; Max Scherzer will pitch if he can; otherwise it will be Stephen Strasburg on the hill for Washington. The Diamondbacks travel to face Clayton Kershaw and the 104-win Dodgers. In the 22 seasons of the wild card era, the team with the best record in baseball has won the World Series four times.
Andrew Kahn is a regular contributor to CBS Local. He writes about baseball and other sports at andrewjkahn.com and you can find his Scoop and Score podcast on iTunes. Email him at email@example.com and follow him on Twitter at @AndrewKahn